The Railways were introduced in India by the British in 1953. It is the fourth-largest rail- network in the world, the Lifeline of the Nation. The other side of the coin exposes a dangerous form of living. More than 400 thousand children ranging from the age of 0-18 years writhe their lives away amidst the filth. These cement paved platforms are their only means of survival. It provides them with more opportunities to earn money as compared to the streets, they pick rags, shine shoes, beg for food, sell items, clean, lift loads and sleep in confines of the station.
These are poor, exploited or abandoned children who have to fend for themselves and earn their daily bread. They include runaway children, orphans, lost children, ones from broken homes and dysfunctional families, and kidnapped children, children who migrate from rural areas to earn a living and children whose parents have suffered the same fate. These children experience a spectrum of challenges that often go unnoticed and unaddressed. Their presence is normalized and fail to notice that they are unaccompanied minors who are in need of guidance.
Every five minutes, one child comes to the station, i.e., 12 children in an hour and 288 children in one single day, which is indeed a huge number. Most of them do not have families and some of them are born and brought up in the station under unfavourable conditions of poverty. If a child is found to have a family, they are tracked down and sent back to their homes. Sometimes children are sent to shelters for a temporary period but due to lack of legal identification, they are not taken in by most organizations. Most of them have no knowledge of their origin, the absence of a birth certificate is a barrier to them not being rescued. Uncountable attempts were made by the governments since several decades but the implementation of the welfare programs paralyze at the bureaucracy.
These children are extremely vulnerable to abuse. They are the victims of exploitation, an unending vicious cycle. They are physically, emotionally, socially and economically deprived from being able to lead a well-functioning life. Although they earn a fair amount through begging, selling and performing, the money is snatched away from them by the mafia, corrupt higher officials, porters and older children. They are forced to spend all of their money on alternate drugs the same day.
Substance abuse is a recurring activity and it often leads to drug addiction. Most of the parents include 14-year-old children themselves, who use liquor and tobacco to silence their crying babies. The children get addicted to these drugs by the age of 3 and the toxic environment makes it difficult to break this cycle of abuse. As they grow older, they use commonly found objects like tyres, old clothes, plastic, cough syrup and tablets. Their drug addiction makes them violent, difficult to handle and risky to work with, which is why many organisations do not work with them. They also seek drugs and liquor to achieve a sense of relief from their tragic life.
As they are born with nothing to call their own, they have to work extremely hard to earn a day’s wage. According to Indian Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, Article 21-A The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act states to provide free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years as a Fundamental Right. This is illegal as it can be categorised under child labour. Formal education requires identity proof and it is not a viable option as it would deprive them of their daily wage.
Sexual abuse is prevalent among young boys as well. Young girls who are barely teenagers become mothers; the grave issue of adolescent pregnancy is a tragedy. As they are unable to provide for the babies, they start using alternative drugs which makes them aggressive and irritable.
They are trafficked and sold for money. They are neglected and suffer from low self-esteem, alienation and helplessness. They are victims of exploitation, forced to take on roles of an adult at a small age which make them impulsive and angry. They live under predominant conditions of fear and anxiety, experience post-traumatic stress and depression. There is a significant relationship between poverty and abuse.
Many children die at an early age due to accidents and an unhealthy lifestyle. Their lifespan is way below an average individual's life and we can only change this by taking action to help them. Most of these children have adapted to life at the station and cannot imagine a better life for themselves. They have accepted their way of life and do not dream for better. To cut their wings off before they could fly is what we as a community have been doing as we continue to deny their human rights.
There are only a handful of people who have come forth to help these children. Sanoj NT is a Change Maker who set out on a journey to transform the lives of those children who took up begging at railway stations. In an interview with DYD Cafe, he told the story of ‘Child in Rail’, an Informal Mobile learning center for these children. He wants them to be legally identified as Indian citizens, help receive support from the government to accommodate them and make a policy that helps them work and receive part time education. He is pursuing his PhD, an action research titled “Plight of Children on Railway Station at Raipur” is based on his first-hand experience in working with the children in Raipur.
Image: Sanoj with the children playing on the rail tracks ( above left) Sanoj interviewing a child on railway platform (bottom right)
He embarked on this social cause in 2013 by distributing food and clothes. He worked to send them to shelter homes to improve their lives. In 2015, he spent 9 months in Nagpur, Raipur and Itarsi adapting the lifestyle of the children - living the way they did, eating the food they did, sleeping wherever they did. He learnt about their difficulties but he was at a disadvantage when his health started deteriorating, this again depicts their unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle. It also shows how their bodies and immune systems have adapted to survive in extreme conditions, but it is risky nevertheless.
He states that “Initially, it was difficult to get used to it because of the pungent atmosphere, bad food and sleeping on the platform but these children are very nice, kind and caring. They share food and play games. It surely was a unique learning experience”. When he was asked about why he is doing it, he said we are all where we are today because somebody made a decision to carry it forward. A personal incident where he witnessed a child in an accident moved him emotionally and inspired him. Although the difficulties he faced made him think twice about working with them, he said that the feeling of having changed someone’s life for the better is what makes it worth it.
Child in Rail
A non-governmental organization aimed at empowering and educating the children at the railway station. It is an informal education center that offers services like an Evening School, Child Bank and Child Parliament. The outreach workers pursue the children by going after them and engage them collectively. As it is mobile, they are taught under a tree or a bridge, the platform, etc. They are taught basic health and hygiene, the alphabets, reading and writing. They are then incorporated with formal schools. Their long-term goal is to establish their own school. The Education Program is aimed for children between the ages of 5-12 and the children beyond 16 are given vocational training.
Child Bank was introduced for the purpose of saving money for the children. There was a correlation between the amount of money they had and the quantity of drugs they abused. If they had a secure place for saving money, they would not spend it on drugs and there would be a decrease in the same. An issue arose as they did not have legal identification, having their own account was out of the question without an identity. On the other hand, collecting their money posed the issue of child labour. With the policy documentation, the children will be able to save their hard-earned money.
Child Parliament is a platform where the children themselves could discuss their problems, find solutions and act as mediators. These programs were created keeping the best interests of the children in mind and have helped several hundreds.
The problems of the railway children are one among the few non-mainstream issues that require more coverage by the media and people all around India should know about their situation. Even with a number of policies these children have been far from reach of justice. These children who work day in and day out are no less than regular children who need love and a nurturing environment to grow up in and should not be treated like any less. They should be saved from the cycle they are trapped in and this will only be possible once the ‘have-it-alls’ make a conscious effort to spread awareness to elevate their current position and help them lead fulfilling lives.
DYD café. (2020). DYD café Episode 6 - In conversation with Sanoj. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AozB7dzx2-0
Dutta, N. (2018). Street children in India: a study on their access to health and Education. International Journal of Child Youth and Family Studies 9(1):69.
Suddhachit Mitra, V. Y. (2015). Child in Need Institute (CINI): Changing Lives of Homeless Children on Railway Stations. South Asian Journal of Business and Management Cases 4(1):122-134, 13.
About the Author
Neha Vineesh is the Research Associate and Writer at Think it Again. She is pursuing higher studies in psychology and is deeply interested in the exhibition of positive behaviour in societies, groups and individuals.
Connect with Neha at firstname.lastname@example.org